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Devyani row: India, US blame junior staff

india Updated: Dec 28, 2013 11:44 IST
Devyani Khobragade

The actions of junior officials were responsible for the Devyani Khobragade affair and their seniors were committed to undoing the damage caused. This was a consensus arrived at by Indian and US officials in a review of the diplomatic crisis on Thursday in Washington.

The newly arrived Indian ambassador to the US, S Jaishankar, met with the State Department number three, Wendy Sherman, and the US Under Secretary for Management, Patrick F Kennedy, after presenting his credentials to the State Department’s protocol office.

Jaishankar urged that the US criminal charges against Khobragade over her treatment of her maid be dropped. He also objected to the US government’s evacuation of family members of the maid from India and thus undermining Indian judicial sovereignty.

Both sides agreed that the crisis had arisen from actions by low level officials and did not reflect official views about the bilateral relationship.

There has been concern in New Delhi that Khobragade’s arrest was cleared at a senior level, indicating that the Obama administration was uninterested in the relationship.

New Delhi wants to ensure an emotional response is not allowed to threaten ties. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has privately said "things should not spiral out of control." A senior cabinet member reminded the new ambassador before he left for Washington that the two capitals "laughing" at the crisis are "Beijing and Islamabad".

Junior US legal and law enforcement staff seemingly made decisions without informing superiors who would have understood the diplomatic consequences., quoting senior US administration sources, claims that when Indian foreign secretary Sujata Singh met senior US officials – including Secretary John Kerry, State Department number two William Burns and Assistant Secretary for South Asia Nisha Desai-Biswal – none of the last three knew that US Attorney Preet Bharara’s office was preparing an arrest warrant for Khobragade that would be issued the next day.

That even Biswal, the diplomat in charge of South Asia, might not have known is being treated with some skepticism by both US and Indian diplomatic sources.

After all, the US embassy in New Delhi’s human resources director had been briefed about Khobragade’s missing maid on July 5, the first of many such communications between the two foreign ministries. The US State Department’s protocol office had sent the letter on September 4 to the then Indian ambassador, Nirupama Rao, expressing concern about Richard’s allegations. "At best Biswal would have not been sure when Bharara was issuing the warrant and this may have led her to keep quiet," said a US diplomatic source.

The good news for India is that the highest levels in the US system want the breach to be repaired – an assurance that State Department officials also gave to US corporate representatives on December 20 in Washington.

However, sources in both governments admit the legal thicket that now exists will not be easy to cut through even with the best of intentions.